Back and Forth

For a while now, I’ve been using an app called Audiogalaxy to get back to my music library at home and essentially have access to my library with over 100 gigs of music to supplement whatever tracks I have synced to my iPhone/iPad. It’s fantastic, mostly because I know two things:

  1. I have music on my iPhone that I can listen to anywhere, regardless of whether I have a data connection or not.
  2. I can, with a data connection, get access to my huge music library.

The recently-uncovered Apple patent application is simultaneously awesome and horrific for a few reasons, all of which have to do with #2.

One of the most explosive and formative things to happen to America recently is the widespread adoption of mobile data and internet usage. As I’ve discussed before, the mobile telecom providers have used this to push their agendas and create an awful dystopian future that the American wireless subscriber is going to end up paying dearly for. It’s going to be ugly, folks. Get ready for a future based on as-yet-unwritten disgusting rates based on AT&T’s greed.

If you think this reaction is a bit overblown, let’s dissect the groundwork that needs to be in place for a person to listen to music with Apple’s new system. A person would need:

  1. A computer running iTunes (for syncing purposes). This is pretty much standard, and shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
  2. An iOS device with a data connection. Not everyone wants to or can run a persistent data connection. iPod touch devices are reliant on wifi, and people with the lower-tier AT&T or Verizon data plan (250 MB for $15.00/month, in AT&T’s case) may not be comfortable with a service that sucks up data every time they wan to listen to a song.
  3. Possibly: the above computer with a persistent connection to the internet. This is a variable, and the future is hazy here. Depending on how the whole “Music Locker” thing will work, or how MacOS Lion home server is structured, this may or may not be necessary. We’ll see.

Let’s assume that a person has an iPhone, is using AT&T, and is using the $15.00/month data plan for 250 MB of data per month. We don’t know how much of each song will be synced to the iOS device, but let’s assume it’s about 30% of each song to allow ample buffering time. We can then “fit” three times the number of songs on the iOS device due to the reduced footprint of each song on the device’s memory. The remaining amount of each song would then be pulled from a cloud. I say “a” cloud because it’s unclear if that cloud will be the individual’s computer or this “Music Locker” service. Let’s assume it will be from this person’s computer, so as not to incur any additional fees (yet). The computer will have to be on in order to access the library data, which means an extra power demand and a load on the person’s internet usage (we’re also assuming that internet usage is capped, which, despite some companies claiming their data is “unlimited,” is most likely the case). Most likely, the data usage through a home internet connection is insignificant (especially relative to a theoretical cap of 50-250 GB). The proposed data usage relative to mobile internet connection with a 250 MB cap is significant, however, and listening to a day’s worth of music can potentially eat up all of a person’s monthly data before they have to pony up another $25.00 for the higher 2 GB plan.

Did you catch that? Let’s look at it again.

The folks who want to use this feature will be streaming data every single time they listen to music. The amount of data that will be used is unclear, but I predict that listening to music for a prolonged period of time (even a few hours a day) will cut deeply into or completely use up a person’s data for the month (again, assuming usage of a cheaper $15.00/month, 250 MB plan). Even on a 2 GB plan, monthly data usage can quickly skyrocket, shooting people dangerously close to the ceiling or their plan. I use about 1.5 GB/month right now with occasional usage of my Audiogalaxy service to get at my home library. If I were to switch over to a model that used data every single time I played a song, I’d find myself breaking that 2 GB barrier on a monthly basis, which would cost me more money.

AT&T and Verizon made a long-term move here, and we’re staring it in the face right now. Back when AT&T first introduced tiered data pricing, I could see the act as predatory. More and more services are being pushed online, to the cloud, and so forth. What AT&T did was squeeze the pipes before the water started flowing. Netflix is growing in popularity and capability, and their long-term dominance in the mobile media marketplace (I love alliteration!), while not guaranteed, is just shy of that. How are we going to watch movies on our mobile devices if we’re being pinched to do so? How will companies innovate if they know they’re going to be dealing with hamstrung devices? People are going to be paying for subscription services and the bandwidth it takes to use them, a double whammy. The outlook doesn’t look good.

Boy am I glad I got that unlimited Clear iSpot subscription while it was still around.

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Dodging the Bullet

It’s no secret that I’m significantly against the junk that a lot of the carriers setting up to ultimately bleed consumers dry. The mobile space evolved rapidly and, like the banking system, carriers are seeing a great opportunity to sink their teeth into some of that sweet mobile meat. They’re actively working (behind the scenes for now) to create a situation that is incredibly anti-competitive and anti-consumer.

As the Internet evolves and becomes increasingly more mobile, we will undoubtedly begin to see carriers introduce “competitive” mobile internet plans, “tiered” pricing, “premium” services and/or access to certain services, etc. We aren’t seeing that right now because most people access their internet through terrestrial (land-based) wiring. Cable modems, DSL, and fiber are still the de facto standard, but imagine what the Internet landscape will look like next year. How about three years from now? Yeah. Mobile carriers want in on that, and they’ll lie and cheat their way into that system to do so.

So how does the consumer protect him or herself against this impending battle?

My solution, thus far, has been the trifecta of Google Voice, Apple, and another unlikely hero: TracFone

I can hear you saying it right now. “Whoa whoa whoa…TracFone?” Yes, TracFone. Any other prepaid service will do just fine (Net10, StraightTalk, etc.)

To understand my thought process on this, we’re going to have to take a little trip in the Wayback Machine. Here we go.

Not so very long ago, Apple unveiled, with the release of the iPhone 4, a technology (or protocol) it calls “FaceTime.” I predicted a little while ago that Apple will be using this technology as a way to skirt the carriers and get all their iOS devices to level where they are capable of “making a call” to other iOS devices. With a huge number of people around the world using the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad on a daily basis, it wouldn’t be far fetched to think that this can become a way for people to call each other and talk face to face (in case you haven’t noticed, we live in the future). I also predicted that they will be leveraging a rumored update to MobileMe that will essentially be the backbone of this new “service,” routing their FaceTime calls, allowing people to update their statuses so people know when they’re available or busy, etc. Now, the source link is outdated (I chalk that up to iPad 2 media insanity). We’re nearing the end of April and we haven’t heard so much as a peep from Apple. I still stand behind this idea, however.

People have asked me (as they always do), if I’m going to buy the next iPhone. This time, I don’t think so. I don’t think that the iPhone has the same value it did when it was first released, mostly because it comes with a pair of leg irons in the for of a service contract from either AT&T or Verizon. I wouldn’t touch either of those plans with a ten foot pole anymore. I believe that the iPod Touch is where it’s at right now. It does apps, does FaceTime, and any sort of Internet you can throw at it. It doesn’t come with a service contract, it’s thinner, lighter, and comes with higher storage capacity (not that you’ll need it with all this cloud stuff going on, but it’s good to have in case you would like to, oh, I don’t know, watch Star Wars.) If you look at my previous guide to get started with Google Voice, we can take it a step further.

Start there, contact me with any questions, and we’ll scaffold further over the course of the next week. For everyone with every possible phone need, there’s a plan that will work for a fraction of the cost you’re paying now, guaranteed.


The Fourth Dimension…er…Generation

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One of my recent blog posts detailed the transition from a carrier-centric model of communicating to a user-centric model. This transition has been, for many people, difficult to understand and/or accomplish due to the ingrained carrier model that so many people are programmed to know. There are so many other ways to communicate, and people who embrace rapidly evolving technology will find themselves on the forefront of a new paradigm of that communication. It’s ridiculous that, in our world of super fast mobile broadband, we still pay carriers ridiculous fees for “minutes” that many of us never use.

The thing is, carriers know this. Carriers know that the future of communication looks more like what I’m doing on my own right now, and not like what they’re trying to push on everyone in American with their advertising wars. Sure, iPhones are great, but when your carrier is cutting your neck and hanging you upside-down over a bucket just so you can use the latest and greatest phone, you’ve got a problem. Phones should not have a “privilege tax” associated with them just because they can run apps.

In a recent discussion with a family member, the topic of “outrageous” pricing for data plans was mentioned. The family member in question pays around $40-50 monthly for a regional voice plan that includes far more minutes than he will ever use (obviously long-distance calls are extra). Up until recently, he did not have any means of communicating via SMS, and added on a $5/month messaging package. Recently, he wanted to upgrade his phone to something running the Android operating system so that he could browse the internet from his phone. He was taken aback, however, when the carrier representative told him that this phone required a $30/month data package. He was upset, but for the wrong reason.

“Can you believe it?” he asked me, “They wanted to charge me $30 a month for data! That’s crazy!”

“No,” I told him, “what’s crazy is that you’re paying $40-$50 each month for voice. I’m talking to you right now on a $25/month data plan. Talking.”

This took a little while to sink in. He didn’t quite get what I was saying, so I explained it to him.

Carriers charge their customers for voice airtime “minutes,” which are essentially packets of data that are prioritized over all other forms of communication in their cell towers. Each minute of talk time is like a reservation of the cell tower’s resources, requiring that the cell tower allocates a certain amount of its processing power and bandwidth to handle that single call. SMS messages consume such a tiny, infinitesimally small amount of that bandwidth that they have no impact whatsoever on the network. Other data (e.g. the Internet) is doled out as the cell tower allocates it. Carriers regularly cite all sorts of statistics regarding their mobile data usage, saying that it’s been increasing exponentially, uses more network backhaul than ever before and yadda yadda yadda. The true killer here is voice, and the shift to pure data will happen right under your nose. That being said, carriers will try to mask it all they can in order to charge you an arm and a leg for something that is not inherently different from anything else they offer.

4G, which is this buzzword that all sorts of carriers are throwing around now (some of whom don’t even have a true 4G network), is a data-only service right now. Data. 4G technology gives users more than enough bandwidth to be able to talk and browse the internet simultaneously. Heck, 4G networks have enough power to allow people to simultaneously video chat and and browse the internet simultaneously. I know, I’ve tried it, and they’re fast. A carrier could easily offer just a simple, flat-rate 4G internet plan for…say $40/month. For that, a person could talk, “text,” and browse the internet essentially without being limited by arbitrary caps to minutes, messages, or data consumption. Heck, we could even say $60/month could get you those privileges. “Wow, that’s cheap!” you might say. That’s right, it is, because those plans aren’t accompanied by the all-too-familiar “voice minutes” that we’re used to seeing now. All our voice is data right now, anyway, but carriers simply charge you differently for it.

Now, here’s the kicker. The carriers want to keep swindling you out of your money. They want to keep pulling every last dime they can out of you, and the way things are looking for mobile net neutrality, it looks like they’ll be able to. Recent laws that have been passed by Congress limit the amount of power the FCC has over mobile carriers, which essential allows them to charge you whatever they want for the “services” they offer. With the possible consolidation of T-Mobile under AT&T later this year (or early next year), this puts the American mobile consumer in dangerous territory. Verizon and AT&T will rule the air, and Sprint will carve out a niche (hopefully by offering real value in their services).

Ultimately, the mobile giants will find ways to squeeze extra money out of America by differentiating “voice” and “data.” This is insane, and you shouldn’t stand for it.

My next article will outline a plan to circumvent the impending storm, essentially to sandbag against a possible assault agains the mobile consumer space. This sounds crazy, I know, but it’s already happening. 4G will be the de facto standard very soon, and 5G will start to peek its head out from the horizon. What then? If Verizon and AT&T are doing this now, what will they do in five years? Ten? The future looks bleak, but stay tuned for ways to skirt the whole thing and save a pretty penny in the process.


A New Way to Count

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Over the weekend, we got news that AT&T will be buying T-Mobile USA for something to the tune of $39 billion. That’s a hefty chunk of change, but I’m going to focus down on a few things that I read in GigaOM that caught my eye. GigaOM present a fairly decent argument as to why this is really really bad for customers, and I have a tendency to agree with a lot of what was said, namely in this piece, look at what they say about Android smartphones:

Don’t be surprised if you see AT&T impose its own will on what apps and service are put on its Android smartphones. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the worst phone company in the U.S.(according to Consumer Reports) tries to create its own app store and force everyone to buy apps through it.

Notably, the paragraph talks specifically about Android-powered handsets (which are “open,” mind you). Not only are a whole pantload of atrocities to net neutrality being committed due in large part to this whole “open” malarkey (which is another story for another day), I’m sure we’re going to see even more horrible stuff perpetrated by AT&T and Verizon as time rolls on. Having a choice between all of two carriers in the US is not a happy solution to me, which is why I’m looking forward to a future that doesn’t explicitly involve me having to fork over half a paycheck every month just to use my phone. As these companies become more powerful, they limit the amount of innovation that can occur in the portable computers and smartphones that are out on the market, mostly because they can then restrict what devices can be used on their network. There are always ways around this, but it’s a scary future, backed up here:

Phone Handset Makers. Before the merger was announced, the handset makers such as HTC and Motorola had two major carriers who could buy their GSM-based phones. They just lost any ability to control price and profits on handsets because now there is a single buyer that can dictate what GSM phones come to market. Even with LTE becoming the standard for the 4G world, it would essentially be a market dominated by three buyers (should Sprint go with LTE), which would place handset makers at the mercy of the giants.

That isn’t to say that this is the end of the road for handset manufacturers, however. Specifically, I think Apple has seen this coming for a while, and has been looking at things from all angles for some time now. On the one hand, they had to give a lot to be able to partner with AT&T, but AT&T gave in and netted themselves with millions of subscribers because they took on Apple’s revolutionary phone when no one else would. I imagine they also looked at the uphill battle they had to fight to get there and said, “What if we couldn’t partner with a carrier, what then?”. The answer came in the form of last year’s iPod Touch. In an article from Engadget:

…and it’s the most glaring sign yet that the next generation touch will flippin’ finally boast a camera (or just a way around that SMS-based activation?)…

Emphasis mine.

Also, from Apple’s support site:

What information do I need to call someone using FaceTime?

To call someone using FaceTime, you need their phone number or email address. Which one you use is determined by the device you are calling:
When calling an iPhone 4: Use the phone number of the person you are calling.
When calling an iPad 2, iPod touch, or FaceTime for Mac user: Use the email address designated for FaceTime of the person you are calling.

So, in short: Apple is trying to craft an ecosystem that is not reliant upon any single carrier to deliver the sort of innovation, creativity, and communication that has taken the world by storm. All you need now is an Internet connection, and that can be found just about everywhere. Think about it: instead of paying through the nose (in addition to losing an arm, leg, and first-born child) to use an iPhone, all you’ll need in the future is a cheap mobile hotspot, the kind that are available everywhere right now. The kind that you can get for $50/month or less. The kind that can have five devices tethered to them. The kind that enable face-to-face conversations with your friends through FaceTime. Brilliant.

When I stood in line for an iPad 2 and came away from the experience empty-handed, I started wondering why. After asking the Apple folks that were present, it became pretty clear to me that they had massive stock of wifi-based models, but very few 3G models1. I considered that for a moment as I ordered my new one online, and realized that this was Apple’s gambit. They’re trying to push their devices away from reliance on anyone or anything. (via)

The end result is still grim for most people, however, since the average person shopping for an iPhone isn’t going to be savvy to Apple’s future plans, they’re just looking for nice piece of kit to throw in their pocket or handbag. If control is taken away from consumers (control=choice), then the carriers will dictate how much and when people pay for each device. They’ll be able to perpetuate this madness with words like this:

Further, we recognize that there have been meaningful recent moves toward openness, including the introduction of open operating systems like Android. In addition, we anticipate soon seeing the effects on the market of the openness conditions we imposed on mobile providers that operate on upper 700 MHz C-Block spectrum, which includes Verizon Wireless, one of the largest mobile wireless carriers in the U.S.

In light of these considerations, we conclude it is appropriate to take measured steps at this time to protect the openness of the Internet when accessed through mobile broadband.

What a crock. Also: scary, because that’s where we’re headed. Now that AT&T and Verizon are effectively the only carriers in the US, you can bet your bottom dollar that they’ll be throwing their weight around in the government to try to get ignorant legislators to give them even more power.

AT&T points out that the combination of T-Mobile USA and AT&T “provides fast, efficient and certain solution to impending spectrum exhaust challenges facing AT&T and T-Mobile USA in key markets due to explosive demand for mobile broadband.” What we’re seeing here is AT&T using what some call a manufactured spectrum crisis — which the FCC has built to a fever pitch in the last two years — in order to shove this deal through the regulatory process. This is a deal that will ultimately be worse for consumers by reducing the number of nationwide wireless providers and consolidating much of the high-quality spectrum in the hands of the nation’s two largest carriers.

This is horrible for the consumer. Sure, AT&T will sugar coat the whole thing and make it look like they just handed you the world on a silver platter, but the bottom line is that they want to control what you get and how you get it.

Now I understand that carrier dependence is not the same as Net Neutrality, but there are certainly more similarities than differences. While Apple can’t necessarily fix the problems with Net Neutrlity, they can change the way people communicate around the world and create more alternatives for more people.

With iOS devices proliferating throughout the world at an amazing rate, it won’t be long until calling your friend in France and talking to them face-to-face from the palm of your hand will be commonplace and free. If you read the writing on the wall, you’ll see that it’s already begun.

1 I’d imagine that Apple also knows that 3G is reaching its EOL (end-of-life) soon, and doesn’t want its customers having a poor experience. If I were Apple, this would be something I’d be seriously considering, as well. The 3G versions are different from the wifi-only models in small ways, and it makes a difference to the overall experience. For the record, I do like the ease of the 3G model a whole lot more.

Thanks to Dazzie D for the picture.